Volunteer firefighter ranks thinning
Sunday, August 07, 2005
By ROBERT STERN Staff Writer
PRINCETON BOROUGH - When Terry Davison first joined the all-volunteer Princeton Fire Department 35 years ago, it had a glut of volunteers.
Back then, the department's full roster consisted of 150 active volunteers, about four times the current number, Davison recalled recently.
Unlike today, he said, the overwhelming majority lived either in the borough or in neighboring Princeton Township.
Most of the Princetonís volunteer firefighters, then as now, came from blue-collar households, said Davison, a 57-year-old retired Princeton University plumber who lives in the township.
Increasingly, however, soaring housing costs in the Princetons - driven both by rising values and property taxes over the years - have put the squeeze on the blue-collar population that has been the fire department's lifeline, said Davison and Princeton Fire Chief Pat McAvenia.
"People have just been forced out. They can't afford Princeton any more," Davison said.
In some cases, blue-collar residents moved to less expensive communities, said McAvenia, who made that transition himself - first to Hamilton and later to a "fixer-upper" in Hopewell Township. In other cases, McAvenia said, would-be volunteers stayed in the Princetons but took on multiple jobs to boost their income, leaving little or no time for the fire department. And, with a few exceptions, the higher-income white-collar professionals and academics who moved into the Princetons don't seem interested in firefighting, said McAvenia, 43, who works as a property manager in Princeton Township.
"You get all the new higher-income people moving in and they don't have time to volunteer. They don't even have time to mow their lawn," he said, citing one factor contributing to the department's manpower difficulties.
The Princetons have the lowest firefighter-to-population ratio in Mercer County - one firefighter for every 855 residents, an analysis by The Times has found.
By comparison, Ewing has the county's second-lowest ratio, with one firefighter for every 451 residents, relying on a contingent of 75 volunteers and six paid firefighters.
These days, the Princeton Fire Department has about 36 active members - only half of whom live in the Princetons, according to a draft of a report on the department McAvenia compiled earlier this year.
"Basically, it's a demographic change," McAvenia said. "The people in Princeton are not basically blue-collar workers any more."
One goal of the report, McAvenia said, is to show the Princeton Borough Council and Princeton Township Committee, probably this fall, that it may be time in 2006 to fund at least a small contingent of paid firefighters to supplement the threadbare volunteer staff.
Though such a move would mirror a statewide trend, it would be unprecedented in the Princetons, which have never had any paid personnel in their joint fire department.
The Princetons, East Windsor, Hightstown and Pennington are the only Mercer municipalities that still rely exclusively on volunteer firefighters.
Seven of the county's 13 municipalities use both volunteer and paid firefighters, while Trenton uses only paid firefighters.
The Princeton Fire Department has atrophied about 75 percent over the past 35 years despite the fact that the Princetons' population grew from 25,962 residents in 1970 to 30,800 in 2003.
"A lot of Princeton residents don't even realize that their fire department is actually volunteer," said Princeton firefighter Scott Bosley.
McAvenia said he is especially worried that properties with repeated false fire alarms, which are problematic in the Princetons, would be at greatest risk in case of an actual fire because of the volunteer shortage.
"Response times do tend to get jeopardized" with a short-staffed, all-volunteer department at properties with repeated false alarms if the alarm, rather than a person on the scene, triggers the fire call, McAvenia said.
"If there is a considerable fire (or a telephone report of a fire that doesn't come through an alarm company), I do get the volunteers out" quickly and in force, he said.
For example, he said, fire trucks were on the scene of a July 19 blaze that destroyed the top floor of two attached Moran Avenue houses within five minutes of the fire call. The national average for response time is about seven to nine minutes, McAvenia said.
Throughout New Jersey, the trend for at least the last 10 years has been for municipalities to switch from all-volunteer fire departments to those that combine volunteer and paid staffing, said Bill Kramer, deputy director of fire safety for the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA).
Even so, the 595 all-volunteer fire departments in New Jersey still accounted for the vast majority of the state's fire squads as of 2003, according to the most recent DCA information available.
New Jersey had 103 combination volunteer-and-paid fire departments in 2003 and just 36 that relied entirely on paid personnel, Kramer said.
And volunteers still make up the backbone of firefighting in New Jersey. As of 2003, the state had 33,344 total firefighters - and five out of six were volunteers, according to the DCA.
The time commitment demanded of volunteer firefighters, no matter their income, profession or community, is itself a key deterrent to wooing new volunteers, McAvenia and others said.
For example, many residents simply have more job and family commitments than volunteers had decades ago, when there were fewer two-income households and fewer people who held more than one job, Kramer said.
Becoming a firefighter today also takes more training than in the past.
East Windsor Volunteer Fire Company No. 2 Chief Rich Slafer, a volunteer for 15 years, cited the growing time investment necessary even to become a firefighter as one factor that deters some prospective volunteers from joining these days.
Slafer's fire company - one of two in East Windsor, both of which only use volunteers - has about 25 active volunteers, compared to about 40 just 10 years ago, he said.
But neither Slafer's fire company nor East Windsor Volunteer Fire Company No. 1, which has about 42 active volunteers, is yet on the brink of contemplating adding paid firefighters.
"We're holding our own so far," said Slafer, adding, "Every single one of our members is local."
East Windsor and Hightstown have taken steps in recent years to stave off a departure from the all-volunteer system by offering their firefighters financial perks, such as a length-of-service awards program (LOSAP).
Under Hightstown's LOSAP, for example, the borough sets aside up to $750 annually in a retirement-type account for each volunteer firefighter who qualifies for the benefit, said Hightstown Fire Chief John Archer III.
A LOSAP is not available in the Princetons, but McAvenia said it might be time for the towns to consider it.
Hightstown's LOSAP, which Archer estimates costs the borough between $25,000 and $30,000 a year, is based on the number of emergency calls, drills and other training activities in which the firefighter takes part.
Hightstown's 4-year-old program, along with other smaller incentives - such as the waiving of municipal dog licensing fees for borough firefighters - seems to have helped its fire department draw more volunteers, Archer said.
"I can't say we're flush . . . but we're closer than we've been in probably 10, 15 years," he said.
Hightstown has about 40 to 45 active firefighters, all but a few of them local residents, he said.
"When I started, I had to wait till somebody quit before I could go in," said Archer, who joined the Hightstown department more than 20 years ago when its volunteer roster was full with about 55 active members.
"It's a shame that there's less and less volunteers. That's the way America was built, on volunteers," Slafer said.
"For now, we're holding our own, but it's getting tougher and tougher," Slafer said. "Somewhere down the line we may have to go the same route" to dual volunteer-and-paid fire departments.
Anyone interested in volunteering as a firefighter may contact their local fire department or a toll-free state hotline for information: 1-800-FIRELINE.
NOTE: Contact Robert Stern at email@example.com or (609) 989-5731
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Results 1 to 10 of 10
08-19-2005, 12:44 PM #1
Volunteer firefighter ranks thinningDKK
IAFF Local 384:
"Above all, an assignment to a truck company should be considered a promotion."
Chief John W. Mittendorf-1998
08-19-2005, 12:56 PM #2
- Join Date
- Mar 2004
- Memphis Tn,USA-now
That's how a lot of departments got started,as volunteer.It's like a law of progression or something,volunteer dpeartment goes paid on call and then combination POC/Paid,then onto full time paid department.
08-19-2005, 03:26 PM #3
- Join Date
- Jun 2002
- Glenn Dale Md, Heart of the P.G. County Fire Belt....
Absolute B.S. ....................
Show me a department with few Volunteers, and I'll show you one that doesn't care enough about getting more Volunteers. PERIOD. "News" items like this show up from time to time, and the lack of effort to correct the supposed "Problem" is pathetic. A VFD in my area, in a VERY poor part of the county, was low on Volunteers. They found more Volunteers in their own Community by trying a very novel idea. They had the backbone to get off the sofa and go out in the community, door to door, to explain to their residents what Volunteering was all about. THEY GOT HELP. Survey after survey has shown that almost half of all americans will Volunteer, IF ASKED, and IMHO, get an honest idea about what help is needed. That people in Academia, and/or people of means won't Volunteer is just plain WRONG! Ask some of my neighboring departments in the U.of Md. area about that. I do know that there are quite a few Chiefs in my area with Degrees that indicate a serious academic background, including my predecessor who has a Doctorate. One of my Volunteer EMTs is studying at Oxford, and there is another at Yale. Remember, Everyone puts their pants on, one leg at a time. We were all created equal, and no one is unapproachable. You can't find Volunteers? You are not looking. IF you need help, let me know, I'll do what I can.
Last edited by hwoods; 08-19-2005 at 03:29 PM.Never use Force! Get a Bigger Hammer.
In memory of
Chief Earle W. Woods, 1912 - 1997
Asst. Chief John R. Woods Sr. 1937 - 2006
IACOJ Budget Analyst
I Refuse to be a Spectator. If I come to the Game, I'm Playing.
08-19-2005, 03:33 PM #4
- Join Date
- Oct 2003
- Troy, NY
Well, I geuss it's time to hire some firemen!
(I think it's funny when all you regulars do the dead horse thing)
08-19-2005, 03:48 PM #5Originally Posted by hwoods
We push for more volunteers but like stated no one wants to spend time for the training or has the time due to having to work more hours to pay the bills considering in my town alone cost of properties have gone sky rocket the more common "there are a few exceptions " type folk that do volunteer do not live here any more. Example would be my parents home Cost in 1981 was under 100g now the value is around 700g and ask me if the average volleys type person affords to move into towns like that and has time to be a volley. Another factor is town sizes where I live the towns are all 1 square mile and up towns. So if all homes are priced high and only the white collar people can afford them well do the figures if we have only approximate 6-10 thousand residents full time you donít have much to pick from. So thats why many towns are going to paid crews for the days.******=================
------GOD BLESS AMERICA ! ------
08-19-2005, 03:57 PM #6
Thanks Chief... I knew as soon as I saw that you posted on this it would be a good read!
There is by no means ever Enough firefighters so recruitment needs to be continous, not just when you are short. We had previous leadership that acted that way and thankfully (for numerous reasons, they are out of power) The current line officers (myself included as Capt/TO) have actively recruited for the last 2.5 years. We had real estate type signs created and scattered about town, we put 'members wanted' on our annual fundraiser mailings, whenever we don't have something to advertise on our station sign, it says "Volunteers needed", we carry applications with us to all public events such as community days, etc.
With this renewed effort, we have taken in around a dozen members about 2 of which were previously trained, a handful want to go to fire school ASAP, and a couple have come in honestly and said they want to do anything to help but can't go to fire school for various reasons. Which is fine, we have a support member category that allows them to do anything that doesn't require fire school, heck we run a lot of MVA and I have 2 guys who recently joined just for that. They were honest up front and said they felt they couldn't enter a burning building but would do anything else you wanted of them and do to previous First Aid squad membership were already extrication trained.
I do agree that membership demographics have changed. There are no more mom & pop hardware stores where Joe owner leaves the store when the fire whistle blows, but the people are still out there somewhere. The hardest thing to address at this point is daytime response. Thankfully we have a couple of members who are career FF's in other places and work 24/72's so they are around 3 out of every 4 days they are around town to answer alarms. Combine them with the guys who work locally for the public works dept, nights or who's employer lets them leave(mine thank goodness ) we are usually pretty good, but it still remains the one thing that scares me.
The bottom line is like many other things, you get out of it what you put into it. You CANNOT sit back and expect members to knock on your door. Almost all of my new guys stated they never would have come out without being enticed by one of the ad campaigns, heck 2 of them assumed we were "a paid department and they already had a job so why bother." The only ones that stated they would have shown up unsolicited were the trained guys because they were itching to get back in service after moving to our area.
The other thing is give guys options as to membership categories. If you can get some support or social members that can staff the fundraiser dinner or some administrative detail, it potentially reduces the time burden on a Firefighter.... maybe that gives him another night home with his family and that boosts his morale, etc.
Its not easy by any means, but giving options and advertising has (knock on wood) been working for us.
Last edited by FFTrainer; 08-19-2005 at 04:01 PM.
08-19-2005, 04:38 PM #7
I have yet to have a person come to me and say I won't join because the training is too many hours. Sorry, I hear that excuse a lot, but I don't buy it.
We put the effort in to recruiting. We average 4-6 FF's per engine, per call - during the day. Night time/weekend is higher. Between our 2 stations, there is easily 15-20 guys for an auto alarm in a place that has one almost once a week. And I have a whopping population of ~8000. Get out there and talk to people, don't wait for signs to bring them in.
A poster above stated in another thread he is happy with a 3 man response on an engine. I'm not, I like mine with 5 or 6, and still in that 3 mins."This thread is being closed as it is off-topic and not related to the fire industry." - Isn't that what the Off Duty forum was for?
08-19-2005, 05:49 PM #8
Originally Posted by Bones42
- Join Date
- Mar 2003
Lets see here - found a syllabus for Firefighter 1 - for Bergen County. (I'm not picking on Bergen County-I was born there, but haven't lived there in 35 years. This is a good example for the commitment needed for Basic in NJ currently.).
check the web - http://www.co.bergen.nj.us/bclpsi/Fi...20schedule.htm
If our prospective volunteer starts the end of this month (August), after a commitment of threee nights a week, he'll be done by CHRISTMAS.
Any way you cut it - that is a tremendous commitment for anyone.
As for myself? I took FF1, FF2, and FF3 while I was still in high school; WELL before the commitments of a family, work, mortgage, etc. If I had to start from scratch today, with all of the above comitments? I would have to say 'forget it'.
Either we get 'em young, or we aren't going to get 'em!
08-19-2005, 07:54 PM #9Originally Posted by Bones42******=================
------GOD BLESS AMERICA ! ------
08-19-2005, 08:34 PM #10
- Join Date
- Apr 2004
- Bossier Parrish, Louisiana
While I agree that there are communities where the demographics work against a large volunteer force, in most cases, a lack of manpower is as Hwoods stated, is a result of the fire department'sw apaphy towards continious, targeted and aggressive recruiting. This community may be one of those that may face a challenge still operating an all-volunteer department, but without seeing what they have done and are currently doing in thier recruiting program, I don't feel it's appropreitte to comment on thier situation. I truly beleive that most communties can find volunteers, despite the sometimes overburdonsome training requirements if they make a serious effort to understand the basic motivations that cause people to volunteer and take the time to learn how to market thier department and develop an effective and aggressive recruiting program. This program includes everything from members simply talking to thier friends, neigbors and the community one-on-one to cordinated marketing programs utilizing local media and traditional advertising meduims such as lawn signs, ads, articles, TV spots, posters, etc., etc.
There are resources out there ... often all it takes is one member taking a class at a local community college (yes, marketing principles apply to the fire service) or maybe a small group of 2 or 3 taking a drive to a department that has an effective recruiting program, and simply barrowing the ideas that have already been developed and perfected.
Yes, it takes effort, and work. but in most communities it will pay off.
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